ORG Volume 5, page 2610, records the first appearance of this piece (Uncollected No. 264) in the London Morning Post of 11th November 1933, the fifteenth anniversary of Armistice Day, which marked the end of the Great War of 1914-1918. Excerpts were also publishrf in National Review for December 1933. It was followed soon after by a powerful poem on much the same theme, “The Bonfires”.
Stewart reports publication of the first edition in book form of this short play, in the style of Lucian, by Garden City, Doubleday (1933), printed for copyright purposes in cream wrappers, the front cover printed in green. It is collected in the Sussex Edition vol. xxx, and the Burwash Edition vol. xxiii. It is also to be found in the University of Sussex Special Collections, as “Kipling Papers Stories and Poems 1930-1937, Miscellaneous Cuttings 1891-1945”, ref. 28/9.
This is a protest against the inadequate state of Britain’s defences after the Great War, brought about by disarmament and what Kipling saw as the general neglect of the armed forces by the government. It is set in the form of a dialogue in the style of the classical author Lucian, with characters from the ancient world, expressing urgent current issues. As the company of Dead Men on their ‘cruise’ to Hades attest, lack of resources, competent leadership, planning, training, adequate munitions, and general readiness for battle, lead to defeat and the painful death of many young men. The dreadful lessons of the Great War are being forgotten, and need to be remembered.
This was a concern long close to Kipling’s heart, reflected in much of his prose and verse in the years before the Great War. See in particular “A Village Rifle Club”, and two stories in Traffics and Discoveries, “The Army of a Dream”, and “The Comprehension of Private
Copper”; also his other South African stories.
Harry Ricketts (p. 372) recalls Kipling’s ingrained anxiety about England and the Empire:
… he had never stopped worrying about Germany, and the rise of Hitler and National Socialism confirmed his worst fears. One response was to remove the sign of the swastika from his books … Another response, showing some prescience, was to lobby influential friends (including Baldwin) on the need for rearmament, air-raid shelters and other defensive measures .. However, he reserved his major warning for the speech – broadcast by the BBC – that he delivered to the (Royal) Society of St. George on 6th May 1935, the day of King George V’s Silver Jubilee.
The speech … (“An Undefended Island”) is reported in The Times of Tuesday, 7th May 1935: Kipling’s cousin Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister at the time, and would certainly have read it, including this passionately felt passage:
…All pain, whether it comes from hitting one’s head against a table or from improvising a four years’ war at four days’ notice, is evil. All evil is wicked, and since of all evils war gives the most pain to the most people, the wickedest of all things is war. Wherefore unless people wish to be thought wicked they must so order their national life that never again shall war in any form be possible…
This, of course, meant being ready to resist the potential enemy. An address to the same Society in April 1920 when Kipling was in the Chair, is to be found in The Times of Saturday, April 24 1920, where it is headed “The Strength of England.” It is collected in A Book of Words (p. 175).
Much of his later verse also voices this concern, particularly “The Storm Cone” which Harry Ricketts (p. 383) calls:
The most striking poem of warning … deriving much of its power from the menace of the undefined. In Kipling’s own mind the ship in danger probably represented England threatened by the seas of German military aggression, but if so, the lines transcended their occasion, suggesting by the tragic intensity of the voice a threat of more existential proportions.
Notes on the Text
Lucian Lucian of Samosata in Asia Minor, (born c. A.D. 125) was a rhetorician and satirist who wrote in Greek, noted for his witty and contemptuous style. He was the author of Dialogues of the Gods and Dialogues of the Dead in which society of his times was satirised with much humour.
George Engle writes: The whole form and tenor of Kipling’s parody of Lucian is brilliantly similar to that of Lucian’s Conversations in the Underworld which include, for example, a sketch or conversation (entitled in translation ‘No Baggage Allowance’) in which Charon insists that those in a queue for transport across the Styx must jettison all their earthly goods, down to and including their flesh, since only skeletons have the entree to Hades . Charon proceeds to examine and reject all the paraphernalia of office, money, good looks and unpleasant character traits that the dead are keen to retain. To my mind Lucian would have been the ideal person to succeed the young Kipling in the role of reporter from Simla!
There is a good Penguin Classics translation by Paul Turner titled Lucian : Satirical Sketches , with an excellent introduction by the translator. [G.E.]
THE CHARACTERS In Greek mythology Charon was the ferryman of the gods who transported the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Hermes was the messenger of the gods and guide to the Underworld. We have not been able to identify the Philosopher.
tall-sterned sea-castle some early sailing vessels had high ‘forecastles’ and ‘sterncastles’. (The term ‘forecastle’, now ‘foc’sle’, has survived in relation to quarters for the crew in the forward part of a vessel.)
Lethe a river of the underworld – drinking its waters induced forgetfulness of former life. This presumable refers to strong beer, which – in sufficient quantities – is certainly capable of inducing forgetfulness.
the Statue of Achilles This statue, of one of the legendary heroes of ancient Greece, was erected at Hyde Park Corner in central London in 1822, in honour of the Duke of Wellington, the great General who led the British armies against Napoleon. The inscription reads:
To Arthur, Duke of Wellington,
and his brave companions in arms
this statue of Achilles
cast from cannons won at the victories
of Salmanaca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo
is inscribed by their countrymen
Chrysippus Chrysippus of Soli (c.280–c.207 BC) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He is said to have died from an immoderate fit of laughter on seeing an ass eating some figs destined for his own supper. “Give him a bumper of wine”, he cried to the old woman who attended him, and was so amused by the incident that he sank under the exhaustion of his own merriment. [ORG] This tale must have appealed strongly to Kipling, though there is little laughter in this piece.
catapults ancient weapons that propelled stones or other missiles. (See Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 204, for a picture of one in action.) Kipling refers here to artillery, the guns, the dominant weapons in the Great War.
A blue line on the gums can be due to copper or lead poisoning; it could also be caused by bismuth and mercury which were used in the treatment of syphilis. I don’t think it occurs in typhoid. [G.S.]
water with which mules and dead men had had to do The water has been contiminated by bodies – see Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s notes on
that country over against the shore of India this must refer to the Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) campaign, in which many British and Indian soldiers died as a result of bad planning and military incompetence. This was an Indian Army operation, directed largely by the authorities in British India. See Julian Moore’s notes on the poem “Mesopotamia”.
Atropos In Greek mythology the oldest of the Three Fates. She ended the life of every mortal by cutting their thread with her shears. She worked with her sisters, Clotho, who spun the thread, and Lachesis, who measured the length.
the games in ancient times athletic festivals like the Olympic Games, but here probably a reference to football or cricket. In “The Islanders” Kipling had written:
Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.
It is hard for modern readers to appreciate how seriously the British middle and upper classes took games, not a view shared by Kipling.
four thousand five hundred …. Fifteen thousand men probably the Army Service Corps who brought up rations and stores under fire. (King George V awarded the prefix ‘Royal’ to the Corps in 1918 in recognition of their service.)
the head of my School a reference to the Labour Prime Minister, James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), who served two terms as P.M. (1929-1931 and 1931-1935.) As the leader of the Labour Party he was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Kipling.
Politicians of the left, particularly at a time of economic depression, were traditionally more concerned with employment and social issues than national defence.
However, despite his Socialism Ramsay Macdonald was something of a bon viveur.
it needs always two persons to make war “It takes two to make a quarrel.” (Old proverb). A ‘quarrel’ in this context is simply an argument. This suggests that if one avoids quarrels one can avoid war, a dangerous doctrine in Kipling’s view.
public tire-women Hairdressers. Possibly a reference to the hectic fashionable life of the middle and upper classes in the twenties, the implication being that money could be afforded for elegant living but not for warships.
surge-dividing beaks in this context the ram-bows of ancient and later warships. Specially-strengthened bows for ramming were no longer built after around 1900, although ramming was used at Jutland in 1916, as described in Sea Warfare and even occasionally in the Second World War. The British also reduced their naval strength after the Great War.
the covert strife of vengeance Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 The main thrust of Hitler’s appeal to the German people was vengeance for the defeat in 1918, and rearmament to achieve it.
Kipling must have been referring here to the Russians, whom he had always seen as dangerous and alien, a deep-seated view among among Anglo-Indians because of their potential threat to India. See his poem “The Truce of the Bear” :
‘There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man!’
Stalin had been in power in Soviet Russia since 1924, and had embarked on a major programme of industrialisation and modernisation to make her invulnerable.
Kipling would have seen Soviet Russia, along with Nazi Germany, as a dangerous threat to Britain. See his speech “An Undefended Island” to The Royal Society of St George in May 1935, and collected in A Book of Words.
I have looked into the eyes of the very-newly dead An echo of “At the End of the Passage” in Life’s Handicap (from p. 203).
the special long glass of Lethe A draught of forgetfulness. To Kipling the British and their political leaders seemed determined to forget the fearful lessons of the Great War. See Kipling’s poems ”Natural Theology”, “Memories”. . and“The Storm Cone”.
[J. H. McG./J.R.]
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